Sunday, June 10, 2018

Growing Butterflies in the Woods

Pipevine swallowtail in my yard, 2017
The pipevine swallowtail butterfly is a beautiful dark butterfly that is native to Georgia. The female looks for plants in the birthwort family (Aristolochiaceae) on which to lay her eggs. While I am not aware of having pipevine around here, I did see a pipevine butterfly in my yard last year. Preoccupied with other things at the time, I did not wonder what might have attracted her.

Most people that aspire to have a buffet of butterfly host plants will grow woolly pipevine (Aristolochia tomentosa) which has a rather small native range in the state – only four counties per USDA maps. I actually saw it in its native habitat about a month ago in Big Lazer Creek WMA in Talbot County. In very north Georgia, bigleaf pipevine (Aristolochia macrophylla) is the native species. I have seen the huge leaves dripping from roadside vines on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. It was magical to watch dozens of pipevine butterflies fluttering around there.

About 3 weeks ago, I saw another pipevine butterfly in my yard, but this time she was in the woods. She was staying fairly low to the ground and it was obvious that she was checking out the plants as if she were looking for something. I tried to tell her that I had some woolly pipevine on the sunny fence in the other direction but she kept going further into the woods. A week later, in a completely serendipitous decision, I spied a small plant in the yard that I decided that I wanted to identify. I remembered that a friend knew what it was, so I took a picture and emailed it to him. The answer was Virginia snakeroot (Endodeca serpentaria, formerly Aristolochia serpentaria).

Virginia snakeroot (Endodeca serpentaria)

I immediately went back to the woods to the area where I saw her touching down to the plants. There I found a piece of the snakeroot and it had one half-chewed leaf. Under the leaf was a tiny black caterpillar! I looked around for more plants and found nine caterpillars total. Each plant only had one caterpillar and there were many plants that didn’t have any. In researching the plant, I found that one plant is not enough for a single caterpillar so the butterfly knows to leave some empty. Once it has eaten the first plant, the caterpillar will leave and crawl to find another.

So now I know how the pipevine butterfly is living in parts of Georgia where those other two species are not found. Virginia snakeroot’s distribution is bigger than either of those two, extending from north Georgia even down into the Coastal Plain and Florida.

A single tiny flower
Seed capsule

The plant is easy for humans to overlook. I have found about 50 plants throughout the shady areas of my property now, sometimes almost hidden in muscadine vines on the ground. Most are only about 6-10 inches tall with 5-6 leaves arranged in a zig zag pattern. One plant was taller (about 12-14 inches) because it was growing close to another plant; it still only had 5-6 leaves. I was able to find a couple of plants that had grown a single flower at the base of the plant and were developing a seed capsule.

A chewed leaf, the sign of a young caterpillar
The tiny pipevine swallowtail caterpillar

Take a good look at this plant so that you can recognize it for what it is. The leaves look similar to a young bindweed plant which many people would yank as an undesirable. Unlike bindweed, which is a vine, this plant stops growing at about 6-10 inches. If you have this, you might just be growing butterflies in the woods too.


  1. As always, so interesting, Ellen

  2. What a wonderful tale. I have limited ability to notice things, so am in great awe of your ability, as well as your persistence. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Great story! I’ll keep my eyes open for this nifty host plant.

  4. Thanks for posting this information, Ellen. I've been trying to find snakeroot for years without success; now I stand a chance! On a trip to Arizona a few years ago we were on a guided walk in Catalina State Park near Tucson. The leader pointed out a small Aristolochia with a pipevine caterpillar on it. The plant was almost completely devoured and she told us the story about the caterpillar needing to find another plant to complete its development. But it was in the desert and there were no other pipevines in sight. The caterpillars must have a well developed sense of smell to be able to find their food plant, plus the stamina to get there. The pipevine swallowtail is pretty common in southern Arizona.
    Reading your blog is always a pleasure!